Where I am, is Chinese Culture
by C. Forest (Jan. 2007)
Wo ich bin, ist deutsche kultur,” said Thomas Mann. “Where I am, is German culture,” captures in a single literary breathe a particularly keen and astounding acuity that has also been rendered as “Wo ich bin, die ist deutsche kultur”. This other version, standing alone and adding the word “die” (for “there”), entirely shifts the initial meaning: Mann as an embodiment of German culture, regardless of the consequence of space and time, thus symbolizes the spread of the culture, or cultural dominance.
Mann’s reported words in the
“It is hard to bear. But what makes it easier is the realization of the poisoned atmosphere in
The point remains, and it is that Mann equals German culture. These days few Germans, or even Europeans, would make such a statement for the fear they might be called racists. Pride of culture, especially one attached to ethnicity, has been made a dirty thing in western discourse.
There are other objections to this window view of the world, in particular if the starting point is material or Hegelian. This sees an objective reality of the world standing outside of an independent self that, in turn, views the former with the tools of reason and argument. As this epistemological view gained currency in
The essential influences acting on the external realities are usually considered to be "material" forces; for example, the way society is organized and how its production is expended. Early British society, for example, was not all equal or flat. It was organized top-down along class lines, each class pertinent to a particular form of production. Tall hat Britons owned land, flat hat Britons farmed it or worked the factories: incredible but such was the nature of British culture. And, in Hindu India, a caste system also defined the varied kinds of production so that in both systems the demand for equality increases with the swelling numbers are the poor.
Strip out all the influences on a person, the self is a stand-alone entity. This lone figure, and how its life should be lived, is the subject of existentialist philosophy such as that of Kant and in the political philosophy of Hobbes and Rousseau.
There are varied interpretations in describing this lone figure: he may have a “natural state” or he may possess only "natural" attributes (brutal and nasty, according to Hobbes). Regardless, these interpretations exalted the self, the lone figure, above all his circumstances with an important outcome seen today. It is that the philosophies, taken together, and taken especially from the theology of Thomas Aquinas followed by John Locke, that have lead directly to the present human rights framework.
Much as it may be denied (in the United Nations, for example) this manner of viewing the world is also cultural, of the Enlightenment kind. It was created nowhere else but in the west where a Judeo-Christian tradition gave it birth. No other philosophies outside this tradition have produced this level of sophistication in argument. Within this framework the civil rights regime has as its premise this: Take out all the external influences derived whether from god or society, I am equal at birth to everybody else. Being “self-evident” (further proof is unnecessary), it leads to the notion of “inalienability” and it is here that Confucian philosophy disputes.
The disputes exist at a number of points but may be summarized as follows: it is contradictory to claim the self as a stand-alone physical organism, upon which rules and values are stuck onto him to govern behaviour; this would infer a kind of social contract at birth.
The Confucian departure from this western definition of humanity (which originates with the self) starts backwards: A person’s human-ness is neither determined nor finished until he is dead. This is to say a person’s humanity undergoes evolution over a lifespan, in the values held and conducted through his relationships with others. Within the sum of these experiences and conduct of relationships, his humanness is derived and moulded on a day-to-day basis and from encounter to encounter. In short, the self during its lifetime is unfinished business as it constantly learns what it means to be human.
There is no fixed, pre-determinate construction in a person’s humanity, no “state of nature” to quarrel over. On the contrary: His life is the work of his culture, where he is born, raised, given a home and schooled. (Note this fundamental difference to the Enlightenment view: in the Confucian world, laws are not inconsequential; it is just that they are subordinate. They come later and are the effects of culture, not the pressure points to influence conduct from the beginning.) A key feature in the Confucian worldview is that the self is not the starting point; it is the end point. A person’s life (recall Thomas Mann) is the repository, the sum effect of his interactions with his parents, neighbours, classmates, colleagues and superiors. This is also to say that Confucianism has a highly humanistic outcome: man is the end, not the means to the way people behave towards one another. We are constantly thinking in terms of the other, whereas westerners think first of the self and its social contract. In particular, Confucianism rejects the western (Hobbes) view that pits one against all, which had been a doctrinal centerpiece in the human rights regime.
By granting individual sovereignty and by making all equal, that is subject equally to the law, it would, the theory goes, end the natural state of war among individuals, especially between the individual and the state. But, this state of nature or natural state of war is as confusing as it is alien to the Confucian mind. Among Confucianists, the state is merely an extension of the families, and individual persons conflict not from “natural tendencies” but from the failure of a defined relationship. Each behaviour is framed within and therefore contributes to and is dependent upon relations with all the different others, and within each encounter are certain given duties and responsibilities.
To sort out these relationships is natural to the Chinese, or Korean, or Japanese, but westerners find it impossible to grasp because they look to written codes, contracts, and laws to guide behaviour. The Chinese father’s position to his son is different to that of his position to a colleague or superior. In the totality of these relationships are norms and ethical rules that all go into defining culture, residing in the society, family and the self. It is this culture, Chinese or Korean, which makes a person what we call human.
Thus is a fundamental difference between the western and Chinese worlds. The first insists on a fixed, pre-determined way of behaviour (such as it found in the civil rights code and in laws, such as race laws). The second, given certain duties, responsibilities and ethical calculations, encourages flexibility or fluidity. Reason is not inimical to such calculations; rather reason is encouraged to work through the relationships.
The problem isn’t in making the two systems of thoughts gel or fit each other. They can’t. One is an ethical, long-tested system that is inclusive; the other is legalism based on doctrinal dogma: all men are equal is a non-negotiable point, even if the notion is unrealistic and in many societies patently false.
This, the dogma, is one reason why secular
In replicating the British race laws,
All this means that the race laws work to repudiate an entire culture, the Chinese culture. To recall why this is so, return to the Thomas Mann statement, which can be rendered as: Where I am, is Chinese culture. It reaffirms the notion that within the Chinese being is his culture; it resides in him and makes him who he is. This is not an entirely ethnocentric statement because Chinese culture is, in its roots, Confucianism. If spoken hence by Koreans, who are more fervent Confucians than the Chinese are, or have been, then they are perfectly right to claim: Where I am, is Confucian culture.
Recall also how Confucianism defines the self and how within its different sets of duties and responsibilities the culture governs the relationships of Chinese among themselves and with others. The race laws not only usurp that kind of individuality, but they actually take over the mechanism within which relationships are conducted: Treat the foreigner in a such and such manner, or else go to jail.
Adoption of the race laws is a tacit confirmation into the western allegation that the Chinese are a bigoted lot. In their media (Observer/Guardian newspaper group), commentators like Stephen Vines have jumped on such a claim by saying that the racism is actually “ingrained”, to use his word. That is to say racism is an inherently Chinese trait, but if it were true then there is nothing to be done; laws will be useless against anything inbuilt.
The words of Stephen Vines, used to tar an entire society, indeed an entire ethnicity, as immoral (by white, Christian standards) are not a new low in white British racism. But they is calculated for effect, to stir the export of a white moral and legal system as a superior set of rules to live by. Colonial mentality did not end with the end of British rule. In other ways, persons like Vines carry on the colonial tradition, the white man’s burden as it were, through the media and academia. Through these channels they promote their exports of morality and political regimes, while at home they preach the multicultural creed of respecting all cultures.
This paradox is constantly being played out, most pointedly in white Europe where large Muslim immigrant populations test the multicultural creed by demanding Death to
Unlike Islamic and Judeo-Christian traditions, Chinese and other Confucian societies are deeply suspicious of laws as means to regulate behaviour. This is again rooted in the Confucian tradition that is expressed as follows: No virtuous man is created from laws.
This statement not only embodies an instinctive truism, but it also exposes the underlying assumption, repeatedly proven wrong in Europe, that race laws solve social problems that are racial in origin and, in Hong Kong’s case, originating from one side only: the Chinese side. The affinity of western societies to divide nearly all deeds and words into good and evil is not only an ingrained Christian trait, but follows from an Enlightenment tradition that ascribes attributes of opposite polarity or duality into nearly all spheres of life: body and soul, mind and matter, self and other, I and Thou.
Thus, within this framework, there is just black or white and discrimination in favour of something will always be discrimination against another thing.
Note, however, that discrimination is the essence of the cultures with religion as base, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity, but less so in the Confucian paradigm because it is neither a religious calling nor a class system such as that upon which the west once built their societies and which also gave birth to communism. Confucianism is a secular, ethical system, not fixed but fluid, highly humanistic and conscious about preserving the stability of an entire society. It contains discriminatory elements, of course but, unlike western cultures where Germans mastered racial genocide on an unprecedented scale, it lacks rules to govern on the basis of ethnicities. Ask the Koreans and Vietnamese. Confucianism discriminates on the basis of individual relationships, not across communities.
In Sinized form, this Confucian culture permitted overseas Chinese communities to survive and thrive in some of the most hostile environments, such as it has been or still is in
The associations are now gone but in their hey-day, before globalisation, they ensured that dead men alone and without families were given a decent burial and children received the little funding there is to study. They organised tuition, held cultural events, and offered remittance services to families back in
But in these associations and among their members is demonstrated the axiom pointed out in Thomas Mann: Wherever I am, is Chinese culture. Why is this potentially criminal now?
An abiding nature of this culture is that for millennia it has given its people solace and resilience against the odds of innumerable hardships. Now
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